The Exodus Decoded: Exhibit F1

In the first three segments of The Exodus Decoded, filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici marshaled the Tempest Stela of Ahmose, Beni Hasan wall paintings, seal or signet of the Hyksos ruler Yaqub-hor (incorrectly assigned to Joseph by Jacobovici), and the proto-Sinaitic inscriptions at Serabit el-Khadim (which for Jacobovici become “Israelite slavery inscriptions,” although nothing of the sort can be demonstrated) in an attempt to link all of these to the biblical story of the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt and their subsequent exodus, and to link that event to the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt and to the rounded-off date of 1500 BC. None of these “exhibits” actually support the weight Jacobovici rests on them, as shown in earlier installments in this series.

After the third commercial break, Jacobovici turns to what seems to be one of his primary themes, and a lynchpin of his entire thesis: an alleged connection between the ten plagues and the Tempest Stela catastrophe to a Bronze Age eruption of the Santorini volcano, more often referred to by its archaic Greek name, Thera. According to Jacobovici, “This eruption may be another crucial clue for decoding the biblical exodus.” As it turns out, Thera’s Bronze Age eruption doesn’t support Jacobovici’s reconstruction any better than the other exhibits, and for some of the same reasons.

Before continuing with this discussion, I hasten to remind my readers that I am not a volcanologist, a geologist, or a meteorologist. Therefore, I am a little bit out of my depth when it comes to the Santorini volcano. I can certainly follow the argument laid out in The Exodus Decoded, of course. My point is that for this segment of the review I will be heavily dependent on published work in these fields. I don’t have independent expertise in the science side of this like I do on the biblical studies side. With that caveat in mind, let’s proceed with the analysis.

The first question is when Thera erupted during the Bronze Age. According to Karen Polinger Foster and Robert K. Ritner—who support the claim that the eruption of Thera is the cataclysm memorialized on the Tempest Stele of Ahmose—in “Texts, Storms, and the Thera Eruption,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 55 (1996): 1–14, the later date proposed for the eruption of Thera is in the range of 1535–1525 BC, and is “based chiefly on ceramic sequences and Egyptian synchronisms” (8). The earlier date proposed for the eruption of Thera is in the decade 1630–1620, and is based on radiocarbon dating, dendrochronology, ice core measurements, and similar scientific investigations. For the radiocarbon dating, you might want to consult Walter L. Friedrich, Bernd Kromer, Michael Friedrich, Jan Heinemeir, Tom Pfeiffer, and Sahra Talamo, “Santorini Eruption Radiocarbon Dated to 1627–1600 B.C.,” Science 28 (2006). Jacobovici shares this basic information (though not bibliography) with viewers in a short clip featuring Charles Pellegrino, who will figure prominently in Jacobovici’s analysis of the volcano’s eruption and effects.

Manfred Bietak holding pumice identified as Santorini/Thera pumice, from “The Exodus Decoded”

Manfred Bietak holding pumice identified as Santorini/Thera pumice, from The Exodus Decoded

In attempting to untangle this controversy, Jacobovici turns first to Manfred Bietak, one of the lead excavators at Avaris, who says on-camera:

Here pumice from the Santorini eruption appears for the first time, so from archaeological point of view, it looks very much as if the eruption happened early in the 18th dynasty, let us say, around 1500 BCE.

Of course, Bietak’s “rounded off” number of 1500 BC fits in very well with Jacobovici’s thesis. But note the disjunction between the date that Bietak gives and the date range given by Aegean archaeologists: Bietak’s “let us say” date is 25–35 years later than the decade normally proposed by Aegean archaeologists. 1500 BC is also 14–25 years after Ahmose’s death and 23–46 years after the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt (the dates here must be given in ranges to acknowledge the debates over the “high,” “middle,” and “low” chronologies for the 18th dynasty). As I’ve detailed in earlier installments in this series, sloppy use of dates characterizes Jacobovici’s entire approach. This observation does not impugn the dating of the Thera eruption to the date of Ahmose, but the lowering of Ahmose’s and Thera’s dates to 1500 BC (which Jacobovici needs to do so that he can “split the difference” between the tail end of Ahmose’s reign and the earliest 15th-century dates that anybody proposes for the exodus). “Rounding off” these dates by fifty years or more so that they converge on 1500 BC has no merit as a technique of historical reconstruction, but it’s absolutely necessary for Jacobovici to make his case.

The second but distinct chronological issue is the relationship between the time of Thera’s explosion and the first signs of pumice in Avaris. Jacobovici uses snippets of interviews with Bietak to make it sound like Bietak agrees with Jacobovici’s scenario that pumice from the Thera eruption flew through the air and landed in Avaris. But Jacobovici’s scenario is both implausible and contrary to Bietak’s actual conclusions.

The relative locations of Santorini/Thera and Avaris

The relative locations of Santorini/Thera and Avaris

It’s not likely at all that pumice from Thera showed up in Avaris at roughly the same time as the eruption itself. In The Exodus Decoded, Jacobovici says that the island of Santorini lies about 700 km from the Egyptian coast; that looks about right from Santorini to the closest spot on the Egyptian coastline, about 22 km or so northeast of Alexandria. However, Avaris itself lay farther to the east, about 870 km from Santorini. It seems to me quite unlikely that pumice from Thera traveled 870 km through the air, but ..

First, a word about the way that volcanic force is measured. Volcanologists use a scale called the Volcanic Explosivity Index to rank the strength of various volcanos. According to the Global Volcanism Project at the Smithsonian, the Bronze Age Santorini eruption (which they date to 1640 BC, ±12 years) was a 6 on the VEI scale, ejecting approximately 6.3 x 1010 m3 of material. By comparison, the Vesuvius eruption of AD 79 was a 5 on the VEI scale, ejecting approximately 3.3 x 109 m3 of material.

The Vesuvius analogy provides useful benchmarks. Recall the shot of Manfred Bietak holding a piece of Thera pumice. It’s hard to tell exactly, but about 5 cm in diameter wouldn’t be an unreasonable guess. During a volcanic eruption, of course, larger chunks will land closer to the volcano. In the Vesuvius eruption, pumices 15 cm in diameter made it about 6 km downwind, while pumices 5 cm in diameter traveled as much as 8 km downwind—about the distance from Vesuvius to Pompeii. But most of the pumice that landed on Pompeii was in the form of 1 cm rocks. Think about that for a moment: at a distance of about 8 km downwind from Vesuvius, most of the pumices that fell there were only 1 cm in diameter. Yet Jacobovici wants viewers to believe that pumice from Thera landed some 870 km away, in Avaris. The Thera eruption was indeed more powerful than the Vesuvius explosion, by one step on the VEI, spewing out about 19 times more ejecta. Nineteen times the volume of ejecta doesn’t mean that the ejecta traveled 19 times as far; making that calculation would certainly result in an overestimate. Even that overestimate, however, would fall far short of the 870 km that Jacobovici needs. Ash is a different story, but the pumice would have landed much closer to the volcano itself. In fact, according to S. Hood’s 1978 paper “Traces of the Eruption Outside Thera” (published in 1979 in Thera and the Aegean World I: Papers Presented at the Second International Scientific Congress, Santorini, Greece, August 1978, ed. C. Doumas), there is no evidence that airborne pumice from the Thera eruption reached the Greek mainland. Athens is about 230 km from Santorini, about one-quarter of the distance from Santorini to Avaris—and yet no airborne pumice from Thera landed on the Greek mainland. We should recognize that the prevailing winds may have played some role in this (more on that later), but the simple fact that airborne pumice from Thera’s Bronze Age eruption did not travel 230 km to the west puts paid to Jacobovici’s notion that it flew some 870 km west by southwest. (Hood, by the way, followed the old dating of c. 1500 BC for the Santorini eruption, but this was in 1978, and based solely on archaeology, not on volcanology or geology.)

Nobody doubts that pumice from the Thera eruption could be found in Avaris at the turn of the 15th century BC, but it didn’t get there by flying through the air. Remember that no airborne pumice from Thera reached Greece, yet Greece has plenty of Thera pumice. To explain why, Hood cites G. Rapp, S. R. B. Cooke, and E. Henrickson (“Pumice from Thera (Santorini) Identified from a Greek Mainland Archaeological Excavation,” Science 197 [1973]: 471–473) to the effect that the Santorini pumice found at Nichoria was waterborne when it reached the Greek mainland, and had been removed from its original “landing point” by the inhabitants of Nichoria. Something similar seems likely for the Thera pumice at Avaris, especially since pumice from multiple volcanoes—not just Thera—has been found at Avaris (see C. Peltz, P. Schmid, and M. Bichler, “INAA of Aegean Pumices for the Classification of Archaeological Findings,” Journal of Radioanalytical and Nuclear Chemistry 242 [1999]: 361–377, cited by Stuart Manning on his web site [see the PDF update to Test of Time]). In an earlier installment in this series, I mentioned an article by James P. Allen and Malcolm H. Wiener, “Separate Lives: The Ahmose Tempest Stela and the Theran Eruption,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 57 (1998). This article is really two articles conjoined, one by Allen and one by Wiener. Allen’s portion deals with the textual aspects, Wiener’s with the scientific and archaeological. Wiener explains that the Avaris pumice reached Egypt by water, not by air, and continues:

Tests now show the pumice to be of Theran origin. Whether the pumice has any relevance as a chronological indicator is, however, open to doubt. The deposits are clearly secondary ones, of pumice gathered for some purpose, probably industrial, as distinguished from airborne primary deposits of tephra or ash. Given the direction of the Mediterranean currents, pumice from Thera would float naturally to the Nile Delta. Manning has suggested as an additional possibility the deliberate importation of pumice for some industrial use in the Eighteenth Dynasty. (25–26)

Pumice from Thera didn’t fly through the air to reach Avaris, and surely no pumice washed up directly on the shores of Avaris (except perhaps by means of one of the Nile’s various branches in the delta region), since it lies some 70–75 km inland. The idea that Thera pumice washed ashore on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast and was later taken south to Avaris for “industrial” use is entirely probable and practical. This idea is supported by the fact that other pumice, non-Thera pumice, was also found in the same archaeological context in Avaris, and by the fact that Thera pumice has been found in a wide variety of chronological contexts. As Wiener explains:

In the Aegean such deposits are often found in later, and sometimes much later, contexts. For example, at the island of Pseira, two miles off the north coast of Crete, only about ten percent of the Theran pumice recovered comes from LM IA contexts close in time to the eruption, whereas about ninety percent is found in the LM IB destruction levels, a half-century after the eruption on the short chronology and a century later on the long chronology. At Zakros, on the east coast of Crete, significant amounts of pumice were found in an LM IB destruction context. J. Shaw notes that at Kommos, on the south coast of Crete, lumps of pumice are routinely found in most post-eruption strata. Deposits at other sites have been found in LM II-LH IIB, LM III, and even Hellenistic contexts. (26)

The chief point to be made here is that the presence of Thera pumice in a particular archaeological layer is not diagnostic for the time of the eruption of the volcano itself. If it were, we would have to believe that Thera erupted almost continuously over a period of no less than about 1200 years! Yet archaeologists and volcanologists know for certain that this was not the case. Yes, pumice from Thera found its way to Avaris around 1500 BC. But that does not mean that Thera erupted around 1500 BC, because the pumice traveled to Egypt across the Mediterranean Sea and was subsequently collected and moved from its original point(s) of landfall. Pumice from multiple volcanoes was collected and taken to Avaris, apparently for some practical use (Wiener lists over fourteen different ways pumice was used in antiquity). It didn’t fall (there) from the sky.

Moreover, Jacobovici’s clever editing can fool unwary viewers into mistakenly thinking that Bietak supports Jacobovici’s hypothesis, when he does not. Bietak makes this clear in his own review of The Exodus Decoded, published in the November/December 2006 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review under the title “The Volcano Explains Everything—or Does It?” After describing how Jacobovici took statements by Egyptologist Donald Redford out of context to make Redford appear to support positions that he actually opposes, Bietak writes,

The same thing happened to me. Short statements from my interview, cut out of context, come across as seeming to support the film’s argument. In fact, I objected to dating the Exodus story to the Hyksos period and the reign of Ahmose. And I objected, not because I wanted to steer clear of Biblical chronology and history (the film claims that I was afraid of the Egyptian authorities—nonsense), but because archaeology does not provide any trace of Israelites before the Iron Age (shortly before 1200 B.C.E.). Written evidence is provided for the first time on the so-called Israel Stela from the fifth year of Pharaoh Merneptah’s reign (c. 1209 B.C.E.). It is probably no coincidence that likely evidence of Proto-Israelites appears in the archaeological record in Egypt in the latter half of the 12th century B.C.E. in the remains of a typical structure known as a Four-Room House, considered the customary housetype of Israelites throughout the Iron Age until the Babylonian Exile.

With specific regard to the Santorini pumice, Bietak writes:

The film should have made clear to the audience that, in fact, this argument skates on thin ice. First of all, the date of the Thera eruption is not settled. Radiocarbon dates place it at about 1720 B.C.E.; however, on historical grounds, it can be argued that it occurred in 1500 B.C.E. or even slightly later. Jacobovici’s contention holds water, so to speak, only if 1500 B.C.E. proves correct.

What is, however, highly unlikely is that Egypt was shrouded in a cloud of volcanic ash. Vulcanologists and oceanographers have clearly shown (based on sediment accumulation) that the ash from the eruption was transported northeastward, across Asia Minor. The dark clouds never reached Syria, Palestine or Egypt.

The Theran pumice that does appear at Egyptian sites most likely arrived by sea or by trade. Jacobovici shows some of this pumice from my site of Tell el-Dab‘a as proof of his position. However, the Theran pumice that massively appears at Tell el-Dab‘a and at some other Egyptian and southern Palestinian sites is from the Tuthmoside period and later (several generations after Pharaoh Ahmose). The tephra-particles found in the Nile Delta by Daniel Stanley of the Smithsonian Institution were not found in a datable context and, according to our petrographic scientist, Max Bichler, were too large to be windborne. All this means that it is highly unlikely that volcanic signals from Thera affected Egypt, except that tsunamis may have inundated the northern parts of the delta.

Jacobovici not only advances a highly implausible thesis, he does so using decpetive methods that distort what his interviewees really think so that they appear to support his case when they really don’t.

All of the above sidesteps the amazing audacity of the attempt to deny the firm scientific data on the date of the eruption of the Santorini volcano. As good as ceramic chronology can be, it’s not as good as radiocarbon dating, dendrochronology, and the like for an event such as this. Although attempts to date Thera’s Bronze Age eruption via ice core dating proved to be a red herring, radiocarbon dating of materials from the immediate vicinity of Thera provide a solid scientific basis upon which to date the Thera eruption. Although inconvenient for Jacobovici, the solid scientific evidence points to an eruption in the last quarter of the 17th century BC—about 125 years earlier than Jacobovici’s thesis demands.

Thus when James Cameron reappears and claims that “Jacobovici’s chronology machine has now synchronized a pharaoh named Ahmose, the Hyksos expulsion, the exodus, and the Santorini eruption,” he’s correct only if he’s referring to the special effects layered in behind him. Ahmose and the Hyksos explusion have long been “synchronized”; we didn’t need Jacobovici’s “chronology machine” for that. Earlier installments in this extended review have shown how the proposed “evidence” for dating the exodus around 1500 BC fails, and this installment has addressed the synchronism of the Santorini eruption, which belongs more than a century before Jacobovici’s proposed date.

“It appears that the exodus code has finally been cracked,” says Cameron. Not so. The case being argued in The Exodus Decoded just doesn’t hold together—and there’s still another hour or so to go. In subsequent installments, we’ll track Jacobovici’s attempts to link the ten plagues and the Tempest Stela of Ahmose to the Santorini eruption.